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Creative intolerance over Modi at Ramnath Goenka awards ceremony

Author: Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant
Publication: Dailyo.in
Date: November 4, 2016
URL:   http://www.dailyo.in/politics/narendra-modi-ramnath-goenka-awards-akshaya-mukul-boycott-award-wapsi-intolerance/story/1/13835.html

By boycotting the Indian Express event because of the prime minister, Akshaya Mukul has sacrificed journalistic neutrality.

Intolerance has no ideological parent. It infects people across class, culture, gender and nationality. The Left accused the Narendra Modi government of intolerance last year. Dozens of artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers returned their awards during the "award wapsi" season. (Most announced they would but in the end didn’t. Few, if any, returned the cash prize that went with the award.)

Creative people worldwide are Left-leaning. Being anti-Establishment is a badge of honour – as indeed it should be. The right reaction to such protests – however synthetic their intent and ulterior their motive – is to accept them as a part of freedom of expression in a vibrant democracy.

As I’ve often written, you should be free to say and do what you want so long as you don’t break the law. 

At the Ramnath Goenka awards for excellence in journalism on November 2, 2016, one awardee, Akshaya Mukul – boycotted the event. The chief guest was Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

This is why Mukul did not accept the award in person: “I cannot live with the idea of Modi and me in the same frame, smiling at the camera even as he hands over the award to me.”

Mukul was being honoured by the Indian Express for his book Gita Press and the Making of Hindu India. The book criticises the “rise” of right-wing Hindu militancy.  

So far so good. In a democracy everyone should be free to criticise everyone else, the prime minister included. Mukul himself can be called a mediocre author and a biased journalist. He shouldn’t mind. Only the intolerant dislike criticism directed at them.

Modi himself has been the target of not just criticism but vilification by Left-leaning people of Mukul’s ilk. They have called him a murderer, a goon and other impolite things. They have of course rarely criticised the depredations of the Left in West Bengal or the serial corruption of dynastic parties like the Congress SP, RJD and others. But the right to be biased is also a part of democracy.

At the height of the manufactured "award wapsi" campaign in 2015, this is the statement issued by six artists, one photographer and one art critic (Geeta Kapur, Vivan Sundaram, Ram Rahman, Sharmila Samant, Tushar Joag, Atul Bhalla, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh and Nilima Sheikh):

“The remit of social violence and fatal assaults on ordinary citizens (as in Dadri, UP; Udhampur, Jammu & Kashmir) is multiplying. There are numerous incidents of repression by Hindutva forces operating through their goon brigades. The warnings and regrets issued by ruling party ideologues are merely expedient.

“The Sangh Parivar and its cohorts, who form its support base, and the government itself, are complicit in their attempts to impose conformity of thought, belief and practice. And ‘fringe’ elements are in fact the other face of this government’s developmental rhetoric.

“The ideology of the ruling party has revealed its contempt for creative and intellectual work; bigotry and censorship will only grow. As in the past, we must challenge the divisive forces through varied forms of appeal and protest, articulation and refusal. Our demand can be nothing less than that the entire range of constitutional rights and freedoms of the citizens of this country – freedom of expression and speech, right to dissent and exert difference in life choices including culture and religion – be endured.”

I wrote on these pages at the time: “The language used by the artists is instructive: ‘goon brigades’, ‘cohorts’, ‘repression’, ‘contempt’, ‘bigotry’, and ‘social violence’. These sentiments were conspicuously absent during the incidents of communal violence and brazen corruption under the Congress-led UPA government in 2004-14.”

Mukul’s protest of boycotting the Indian Express event because of Modi’s presence is essentially a political statement. And as an individual journalist he has every right to make such a statement. By doing so though, he sacrifices journalistic neutrality – the gold standard of good journalism. But nobody should grudge Mukul the right to diminish himself professionally.

What’s more worrying is the report that senior editors at the Indian Express were unhappy at the choice of Modi being chief guest at the awards ceremony and sought to reverse the decision.

That constitutes institutionalised journalistic bias. It does the Indian Express’ hard-won reputation for fair and fearless journalism no good at all.

Ramnath Goenka, in whose name the awards for excellence in journalism were instituted, would not be pleased.


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